This is the time of year when kids are getting off for summer break, or graduating high school and heading off to college, or graduating from college and preparing to face the real world. These are all pivotal moments for children of family business owners. How each stage is handled can have a big impact on the likelihood that the business moves into the next generation.
Summer break is a great time to expose your children to the family business. They can come in as regular employees, get to know some of the employees, and gain an understanding of the business. More importantly, the child can begin to gauge how interested they might be in the business, and you can begin to evaluate whether or not your child is really cut out for the family business.
It is pretty hard to go wrong here. But there is one key parameter to success bring them in at the bottom, just like a summer job for any other kid. Many family business owners go astray by giving their kids more responsibility than they should have or by shielding them from the hard work.
If you are in construction, have them go out with the crew; if in retail, let them man the cash register; if in an office, let them deal with the paperwork. This is the perfect time for them to realize the base elements of the business.
For those headed off to college, one of the big questions I get is what should I take to prepare to be in the family business? I think this is looking at the situation backwards. Kids should enter college to explore what is out there and what they feel they might really be interested in. If they are lucky they will find something that they are really passionate about even if it is not related to the family business. (Although, they should keep in mind that they will be expected to get a job after graduation.)
Leaving the nest
Nonetheless, if you still think you might be interested in the family business, take some classes that align with the business. If after your sophomore year you feel truly passionate about the business, take a lot of courses related to the business.
This leads us up to college graduation. This is possibly the scariest moment of anyones life. The regularly scheduled program ends, and there is no predefined plan. You are basically free to do whatever it is that you would like to do, or do nothing at all. The first instinct for many graduates, and even parents of graduates, is to come home and work for the family business. You know you can get hired, you have some experience with the business, and it will enable you to avoid the nightmare of having to look for a job. However, this would be a huge mistake.
When a young person graduates from college, this is the true leaving of the nest and taking flight. And every young person should have the opportunity to stretch their wings and find out what they can do and find out who they are. The psychological term is individuation.
Life after graduation
Ones entire life has been defined as an adjunct to ones parents. Even at college, while some separation occurs and one does have to manage the basic necessities of life, rather little is accomplished in establishing independence. But once graduation occurs, now is the time to start becoming who you are going to be, or at least begin exploring it. This cannot occur by tucking back under the wing of your parents and the family business.
There will certainly be some trial and error, missteps and even mistakes. But there will also be some successes and small victories as well. This is all as it should be in figuring out who are and where your place is in the world.
Everyone grows up going to school, but every May it ends, and we get to reflect on our life journey. While we are young we can explore the family business, but we should also explore the world and how we fit in it.
It is fine if we choose a path outside the family business. And if you find your calling at the family business, you will be all the better for knowing you chose to be there.
Henry Hutcheson is a nationally recognized family business speaker, author and consultant in Raleigh. He can be reached at Familybusinesscarolina.com.